Dallas Colleges: Drew Dudley
Moving on in our rankings of the top 10 at each position in the Big 12 entering 2011.
The Big 12 is really, really strong at linebacker, just as it is at receiver. Running back and defensive line are two of the Big 12's weakest positions, but linebacker might prove to be a true strength by season's end.
If you're curious, here's how I ranked the units by team.
We might even see big, young talents like Corey Nelson, Tom Wort, Arthur Brown, Jordan Hicks and Huldon Tharp fight for spots on this list by season's end, but overall inexperience keeps them off for now.
Here are the top 10.
1. Travis Lewis, Oklahoma: Lewis took home the Big 12's preseason Defensive Player of the Year Award (as much as someone can take home an award with no actual hardware, anyway), but he'll be the easy favorite for the award entering the season. Of my postseason top 25 Big 12 players, Lewis is the only returning defensive player. He's made 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons at Oklahoma, and eschewed the NFL draft to try and win a title at Oklahoma.
2. Jake Knott, Iowa State: Knott doesn't get the national pub of some other guys on this list, but he should. In just his first year as a starter, Knott made 130 tackles, the most of any returning Big 12 starter. Just a junior, Knott should make even more improvement in 2011.
3. Keenan Robinson, Texas: Robinson has all the physical tools, and should be set loose in new coordinator Manny Diaz's aggressive scheme. Robinson made 106 tackles in 2010, but look for his sack totals (two in 2010) to get a big boost from spending more time in offensive backfields.
4. Shaun Lewis, Oklahoma State: Lewis exploded into the Big 12 fan's consciousness as a true freshman in 2010, sharing Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year honors with Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson after making 58 tackles with eight tackles for loss, despite not officially being a starter until the second half of the season. He's a bit faster than you might expect him to be at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, but he should be due for a big encore.
5. Emmanuel Acho, Texas: Acho joins Robinson in one of the best linebacker groups in the league, and will likely be a team captain alongside his fellow linebacker. Acho made 81 tackles to rank second on the team, and added 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for an underrated Texas defense in 2010.
6. Zaviar Gooden, Missouri: Gooden is easily the fastest guy out of this group, and should be due for a breakout year on the national stage if Missouri gets the ball rolling with James Franklin at quarterback and becomes a top 25 mainstay. He tied for the team lead in tackles last season (84, 49 solo) during his first year as a starter, and could see that number jump as a junior in 2011.
7. A.J. Klein, Iowa State: As little respect nationally as Klein's teammate, Knott, gets, Klein gets even less. Which is a shame. Klein, like Knott, was a first-year starter but became one of just 11 players in the Big 12 with more than 100 tackles. Was that number (111, 49 solo) aided by a weak defensive line? Sure, but somebody made those stops. And it was Klein. He'll get plenty more chances to further prove himself.
8. Garrick Williams, Texas A&M: Williams returns as one of the leaders of the Wrecking Crew after making 112 tackles in 2011, including five tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The Aggies need him to play well at inside linebacker in Tim DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme, if for no other reason than because of the uncertainty and likely inexperience at the inside linebacker spot.
9. Elliot Coffey, Baylor: Coffey should be one of the lynchpins of a maturing Baylor defense with lots of work to do under new coordinator Phil Bennett. Though there's no formal depth chart just yet, Art Briles admitted that if anyone has solidified a starting spot, it's Coffey. The 6-foot, 230-pounder made 61 tackles (34 solo) and 4.5 tackles for loss as a junior in 2010.
10. Steven Johnson, Kansas: Johnson emerged out of a good group of linebackers last season to lead the team in tackles, with 95 stops (62 solo). He loses fellow linebackers Justin Springer and Drew Dudley, but will get help with the return of Huldon Tharp. Johnson was a former walk-on, but in his first year as a starter in 2010, rewarded the Jayhawks' decision to put him on scholarship.
Just missed: Will Ebner, Missouri; Sean Porter, Texas A&M
There's a lot of turnover in this space, and the bottom half was pretty hard to sort out. We haven't seen a lot of these new faces on the field for extended periods of time, so it's somewhat of a crapshoot. I don't feel like there's a wide gap between teams 7-10, and each of those squads have at least one linebacker who could be due for a huge year and shoot them up this list.
I see Nos. 1-3 possibly being great, with dropoffs before the No. 4 and No. 7 teams.
Also, if you missed them, here are the other position rankings we've done so far.
So, without further ado, here's how I ranked the linebackers. (Nickel backs are included in this list, hybrid DE/LBs will be with defensive lines)
2. Iowa State -- The Cyclones boast two of the Big 12's best in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, who combined for more tackles than any two teammates in the Big 12 last season. They had 241 stops, and, after healing from a broken leg suffered midseason last year, Matt Tau'fo'ou should join them at middle linebacker.
3. Texas -- Texas' offense may be lacking, but the defense will be strong once again, led by two others likely to earn spots as some of the Big 12's best. Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho were Texas' top two tacklers last year with 187 stops, and return as likely captains come fall camp. Texas' depth chart is wide open, but look for former blue-chip recruit Jordan Hicks to emerge as another star this year, despite being forced to sit out spring camp with a broken foot. Dravannti Johnson played some defensive end last year at the Buck position for the Longhorns, but may find his way back to linebacker. Tevin Jackson was ineligible last year, but he's ready for 2011, and could make an impact.
4. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys "Star" linebacker is occupied by co-Defensive Freshman of the Year Shaun Lewis, and sophomore Caleb Lavey is charged with replacing Orie Lemon, the leader of last year's defense. Oklahoma State has questions on the weak side, but LeRon Furr and Chris Dinkins will compete next fall. Kris Catlin could be a factor, too.
5. Texas A&M -- The Aggies must replace their leading tackler, Michael Hodges, and don't have a clear replacement heading into fall camp. The good news: They've got two others with lots of experience in the linebacking corps that look like budding stars. Garrick Williams should be one of the defense's leaders and Sean Porter returns after making 74 tackles last year to rank third on the team.
6. Missouri -- The Tigers have lots of experience at middle linebacker, where a pair of seniors (albeit frequently injured seniors) Will Ebner and Luke Lambert will be on the field a lot. One of the Big 12's most exciting players, junior Zaviar Gooden, will hold down the weakside and perhaps become a household name by season's end. Sophomores Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, will likely compete for strongside duties in fall camp. Andrew Gachkar, the team's leading tackler, is gone, but here's guessing Gooden emerges as the defense's top playmaker.
7. Kansas -- The Jayhawks linebackers were solid last year, and could be pretty good again, despite losing Drew Dudley and Justin Springer, two of the team's top four tacklers. Steven Johnson, the team's leading tackler in 2010, is back and he'll be joined by possible star Huldon Tharp, who missed all of last season with a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Darius Willis earned a starting role after spring.
8. Kansas State -- K-State's front seven struggled last year, but will get a big boost from Arthur Brown. One man won't be enough to totally fix the Wildcats rush defense problems, though. K-State gave up 26 more yards on the ground per game than any other team in the Big 12 (more than 231 per game) but Brown may be playing in a 4-3 next fall rather than the 4-2-5 the Wildcats have employed since Snyder's return. Alex Hrebec, Emmanuel Lamur, Tre Walker and Blake Slaughter will likely fill the rotation along with Brown.
9. Baylor -- Baylor's defensive depth chart, like Texas', is a bit amorphous after bringing in a new coordinator, but Elliot Coffey figures to be the Bears biggest playmaker at linebacker. Chris McAllister should be solid and Ahmad Dixon is promising at nickelback, too. Brody Trahan is a great story, but him going from third-string quarterback to starting linebacker isn't a ringing endorsement for Baylor's depth at the position.
10. Texas Tech -- Tech will be moving to a 4-2-5 this year under new coordinator Chad Glasgow, and could rise up this list, but the Red Raiders lose a lot of talent from last season's team, which ran the 3-4. Bront Bird and Brian Duncan are both gone, and youth will be a big factor with this group. Cqulin Hubert's outstanding potential is matched by his more outstanding first name, and freshman Blake Dees showed promise after arriving early this spring. They'll likely be the rotation at middle linebacker spot alongside Daniel Cobb and Zach Winbush. Terrance Bullitt could be a playmaker at his new safety spot, listed as a strong safety but with plans to spend lots of time near the line of scrimmage, a la nickelback.
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